In December I received a copy of Sage Cohen’s latest book, The Productive Writer: Tips & Tools to Help You Write More, Stress Less and Create Success. I immediately devoured it. Sage’s approach is one that really resonates with me and her book helped me think big while also helping me to map out some small steps to make the “big” possible.
Today I’m thrilled to share a Q&A exchange I had with Sage about her book and about writing in general. If you have a question, please post it in the comments section. Sage will drop by to answer questions and offer insight. Because I think Sage’s book is so amazing, I will be sending a copy to one lucky reader. All comments posted by 12 am on Wednesday, March 16 will be eligible for the drawing. (If you already have the book, let me know and I won’t enter your name in the drawing.) And now, here’s Sage!
In The Productive Writer, you offer great, easy-to-implement strategies for building a writing life alongside one’s day job. In your experience, how did you know when you were ready to quit your day job and fully embrace your life as a freelance writer? Along those lines, how did you go about finding clients for whom you could provide business writing services?
I started my own marketing communications agency when I was 27, with only a few years of “day job” experience under my belt. I knew it was time to go out on my own because I was having anxiety attacks as I sat around the big conference room table, giving my status report about work I pretending mightily to care about.
When I started freelancing, my expenses were very low and my threshold for risk was very high. I was blessed with a few, great projects to start that have been snowballing ever since into satisfied clients and enthusiastic referrals and more work. What seems to happen is I’ll work with a team of people at one company. Eventually, several of them will leave and find employment elsewhere. Then, I’ll get hired by those same folks at their new enterprise, connect with new teams of people there, and the web of work keeps growing organically in this way. I’ve done a bit of proactive networking, which I always enjoy, and virtually no marketing for the past 14 years.
For me, the more significant project since starting my business in 1997 has been balancing my day job of writing marketing communications copy for clients in parallel with my creative writing: poems, essays, and nonfiction books. It has amounted to two, related but distinct full-time jobs.
I so appreciated your suggestions around file organization – both electronic and hard copy. What would you recommend to someone like me, who needs to revise my file system, but has (ahem) a lot of files already stored on her hard drive. Would you go back and re-organize according to the new system? Or, start with a “clean slate” for 2011?
I’d probably start with whatever feels like the most fun — to get yourself in motion toward this goal. (Being in motion is always the most important part; once you are moving, you can fine-tune whatever you’re doing to serve you best.) To this end, I might suggest that you choose a naming convention and start using it with any new projects starting today.
Then, once you have a feel for it, and see how it’s making your working life easier and more efficient, you can make a plan for renaming older files–but only if there’s a reason to. If you find yourself searching for materials in past files frequently, then it would probably make sense to start archiving those in a way that made the writing more accessible. You could choose some kind of reasonable goal, such as spending one hour every Sunday evening renaming/reorganizing historical files. After a month, you could evaluate if this work is feeling worthwhile and giving you more value — by making information easier to find. It it’s not, then I’d invite you to spend that hour doing something else that contributes to the momentum of your productive writing life!
Your phrase, “professional instead of perfect” is now posted on my computer. Can you share with readers how this came to be a focus of yours?
Ah, yes! So glad to hear that phrase resonates with you! I tell a story in The Productive Writer about a t-shirt my mother gave me years ago. On it, there’s a skeleton in a summer dress wearing a straw hat, seated on a park bench. The caption below the image says, “Waiting for Mr. Right.”
For me, this sums up the quest for perfection in general. We humans aren’t perfect, and we’re not designed to be. For years and years I expected perfection of myself, and this left me quaking in my boots, afraid of my own shadow, terrified of being discovered as a “fraud” whenever my imperfections might be discovered. As I have been seasoned by life and work, I have come to understand that our beauty, paradoxically, is in the flaws, the vulnerability, the humanity that makes us unique individuals and not automatons.
Along the way, I discovered that it’s those clumsy moments that make people laugh, that help them see their own, imperfect selves in whatever I’m writing or presenting. We connect through vulnerability, not perfection. And what I want from my writing and my life is to connect with other people in meaningful ways. In fact, these days when I stand up to read to an audience from The Productive Writer, I’ll point out that “reigns” is spelled wrong / used incorrectly throughout the book. At least three people proofed this book, and we all missed it. So it goes with the human condition.
What I’ve learned is much more important–and a far better way of creating meaningful relationships–is to commit to being a professional — which to me means doing the very best I can, and then letting go. A professional delivers what was promised, addresses any mistakes quickly and responsibly, meets deadlines (or renegotiates in a responsible and respectful way), and generally commits to improving over time. The professional writer doesn’t revise a piece to extinction or let fear suffocate all possibility out of a piece. She sends her writing out into the world when she knows she’s done her best and learns from whatever happens next. We can only do our part.
What is the one mistake you see most writers make in terms of hindering their own productivity?
I think fear is the number one productivity kabosher. We’ve just talked about perfectionism, which is one face of fear. Procrastination is another big one. Endless revision or research that is preventing you from sending the darn thing out is likely to be yet another facet of fear. Chances are good that if there’s some goal you have in your writing life that you’re not moving toward, fear is at the root. I have an entire chapter in The Productive Writer dedicated to helping writers work with fear so that it becomes a source of fuel rather than a dead end. Honing your craft is, of course, supremely important. And, having a working relationship with fear will help you ensure that that your writing will leave your desk in search of its rightful place in the world, with the very best chances of landing well.
You asked for one, but I’m going to offer a second, critical mistake writers make: thinking there is only one way to do something, and then giving up when that way doesn’t work. It’s easy to choose a hero, decide that their particular writing career trajectory is not available to us for whatever reason, and get discouraged. It’s also easy to let disappointment derail us if a piece was rejected by a publication in which we were eager to see it published. As I see it, a productive writer simply keeps trying new ways until she finds one that catches and gets the gears turning. Find role models who inspire you, and let go of the ones who short-circuit you. Find ways to make rejections opportunities to learn about new markets, new approaches to querying, new ways to package, present and promote what you have to offer.
There’s always a way forward in the writing life. The productive writer commits to finding hers.
Many thanks to Sage for joining us here at Motherlogue!